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ZEBRA MUSSEL THREAT PROMPTS CALL TO CLOSE WELLAND CANAL TO SHIPS

A federal scientist in Michigan is urging the closing of the Welland Canal in an effort to stem the spread of zebra mussels and other exotic invaders in the Great Lakes.

This recommendation comes in response to the rapid infiltration of fish, mussels and other nonnative species carried by oceanfaring vessels into the Great Lakes system.

"I think all options need to be on the table. . . . I think closing the door (at the Welland Canal) is one way to look at it, and I'm serious about it," Gary L. Fahnenstiel, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration researcher in Muskegon, Mich., said this week.

But shippers and canal officials say that the Ontario canal is a vital artery in the St. Lawrence Seaway and that closing it would severely damage the North American manufacturing economy.

"I think the recommendation is certainly extreme. I don't think closing the Welland Canal to shipping is the solution," said Michel Drolet, a vice president in the St. Catharines, Ont., office of St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corp., which operates the canal.

About 33 million tons of materials -- mainly iron ore, coal and steel -- went through the Welland Canal in 2004.

Transferring those goods from ship to truck would sharply increase costs, pollution and traffic, said James H.I. Weakley, president of the Lake Carriers Association, in Cleveland, representing 15 Great Lakes shipping firms.

"It's a much more complicated issue than saying all we have to do to solve the invasive species problem is close the Welland Canal," Weakley said.

The recommendation comes as scientists increasingly are warning of a threat posed to the Great Lakes ecosystem by nonnative, or invasive, species.

"Ecosystem Shock," a report issued in October by the National Wildlife Federation, found that 162 species have invaded the Great Lakes -- including the sea lamprey, the aggressive round goby and the zebra mussel -- with a new species arriving every eight months.

Zebra mussels, which started showing up in the Great Lakes about two decades ago, attach in large clusters to the hulls of ships and water intake pipes.

They have no natural predators, reproduce rapidly and consume vast quantities of microscopic plants and animals that other species rely on for food. Toxic blue-green algae blooms follow in their wake, and the cost to manage their spread is $1 billion so far, Fahnenstiel said.

Zebra mussels typically arrive in the ballast water of oceangoing vessels that travel up the St. Lawrence River into Lake Ontario and -- through the Welland Canal -- to the other Great Lakes, scientists say.

Fahnenstiel has found that even ships that change or dump their ballast water still carry zebra mussels in residual sediment at the bottom of their tanks.

That is why he is urging the canal's closing to protect the four upper lakes -- and the rest of North America -- from the further spread of zebra mussels. "The Welland Canal caused the problem," said Fahnenstiel, who described his recommendation as "a call to arms."

When told of Fahnenstiel's recommendation, canal administrators and shipping representatives said that it would be an economic disaster.

Oceangoing vessels -- known as "salties" -- use the canal to bring foreign-manufactured steel to American ports. Those ships would be most affected if the canal closed.

Salties carry 17 million tons per year over the Great Lakes, Weakley said, and transferring those materials to rail or trucks at a Lake Erie port would sharply increase transportation costs and traffic in the region.

The average shipload of cargo is equivalent to 870 truckloads, Drolet noted.

"Our highways can't cope with our existing trade," said Ed O'Connor, chairman of the Welland Canals Foundation, based in St. Catharines.

The industry already is exploring the cost-effectiveness of treating ballast water on the ship or at an onshore treatment center along Lake Erie. "You can't arbitrarily just shut down a transportation infrastructure that would affect the whole North American economy," O'Connor said.

e-mail: swatson@buffnews.com

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